Monday 8 May 2017

Worthless research into thirdhand smoke

There's a wacky psychologist over in San Diego called Georg Matt who has been pushing the concept of 'thirdhand smoke' for a decade. Thirdhand smoke is the ludicrous name for any measurable deposits of nicotine found in hair, clothing, carpets and furniture. It is not smoke and it is not in the least bit dangerous, but in chemophobic California the mere presence of CHEMICALS is enough to start a panic.

Readers with long memories will fondly recall Matt getting headlines around the world with a study of zero academic merit in 2009 when he conducted a phone interview asking parents if they were concerned about thirdhand smoke. Since Matt had just invented the concept, most of them were obviously not concerned about it, but the gullible media (eg. the BBC) still reported the 'news' as he hoped... 

Many people are unaware that even smoking away from babies or pregnant women presents a risk, according to US research.

You have to take your hat off to the way Matt played journalists with this study. His research never found any 'risk' from thirdhand smoke and this set the pattern for all the research that has come after it (and there has been plenty because the cranks of California hived out millions of dollars from smokers to pay for a Thirdhand Smoke Research Consortium). There has never been any real attempt to show actual harm from the smell of tobacco on an old sofa because there is none.

It's a simple process. Modern technology can detect chemicals at the tiniest of trace levels. All the activist-researchers have to do is report that scary-sounding chemicals have been identified and the media lap it up. You don't need to find evidence of harm if journalists are going to infer it.

Matt has been at it again in the latest issue of the amusing comic Tobacco Control. His latest study should be a set text in any course on junk science. He took samples from 25 kids who showed up at a hospital to see if their hands contained traces of nicotine or cotinine (cotinine is a biomarker for nicotine). 18 of them lived with a smoker and all of them had what Matt calls 'potentially SHS-related complaints' (SHS is secondhand smoke and a potentially SHS-related complaint is pretty much everything except a broken leg in California).

So what did he find? It turns out that all of the kids - every single one of them - had detectable levels of nicotine on their hands. All but one of them had detectable levels of cotinine.

Given that cotinine is a biomarker for nicotine it seems likely that something went wrong with the test they did on the one kid who had traces of nicotine but no traces of cotinine. Although Matt claims that 'nicotine is specific to tobacco', both nicotine and cotinine are found in various common vegetables. Matt's little experiment shows nothing more than that cool technology can find nanograms of nicotine on anybody. As his study notes, 'Reported smoking behaviour [of the parents] was not correlated with nicotine or cotinine.'

The fact that these kids were showing up to hospital is irrelevant. It tells us nothing since Matt doesn't bother to assemble a control group of kids who are not showing up to hospital. Even if he had, it wouldn't have told us anything about the health impact of mythical thirdhand smoke.

Indeed, it's pretty difficult to see what conclusion we are supposed to come to after reading this study. Matt emphasises the supposedly interesting finding that nicotine levels were 'higher than expected'. Previous studies have found levels of 25 nanograms per wipe on adults who live with smokers whereas he found an average of 86 nanograms per wipe (for reference, smokers have around 650 ng/wipe on their hands). But even this finding seems to be due to his team wiping a different part of the hand to previous researchers:

Another limitation is that we may have found higher-than-expected nicotine levels, because we wiped the insides of children’s entire hands (ie, palm and volar aspect of fingers). Our ongoing research now includes hand surface area measurements so that we can compare new findings with our previous work.

To make his research seem worthwhile, Matt invents the concept of OTS which stands for Overall Tobacco Smoke and says...

Our findings indicate that children carry tobacco smoke toxicants on their hands, even when nobody around them is smoking. Thus, nicotine and other THS compounds on children’s hands may contribute to OTS, independent of SHS.

The invention of OTS doubles down on the patently false claim that trace residues are 'smoke', and the use of the word 'toxicants' is designed to imply evidence of harm where there is none. Elsewhere in the study he makes the homeopathic claim that 'there is concern that THS may be more toxic than SHS'. Insofar as there is 'concern', it mostly comes from Georg Matt who cites himself no fewer than nine times in the study's 16 references.

This is a study that tells us nothing about a non-existent health threat. Its only purpose is to keep the concept of thirdhand smoke going and to keep the grant money rolling in.  

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